It’s hard to say what New York Times Magazine Editor Jake Silverstein and media critic Johnathan Mahler were drinking when they decided to publish “What Do We Really Know About Bin Laden’s Death”, but I suspect it was a whole case of Derrida 1995 such is the fetid deconstructive odor that arises the day after from this bender of bull.

Mahler spent a day with legendary but aging investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.  He ought to have written a sympathetic story about a legend who has turned the corner into senility but has neither the wisdom to understand nor the friends (or critics) to tell him.

Instead, Mahler puts forth a conspiracy theory based on Hersh’s discredited reporting — that the whole Osama bin Laden killing is a myth.

It’s a beaut of a thumbsucker with such engaging proof-point sentences as this:

Gall’s best guess (and she emphasizes that it is just a guess) is that the United States alerted Pakistan to the bin Laden operation at the 11th hour. ‘‘I have no proof, but the more I think about it and the more I talk to Pakistani friends, the more I think it’s probably true that Kayani and Pasha were in on it,’

Underlined is my emphasis.

And believe me, I have sympathy for Mahler and for Gail.

I myself believe that Big Foot shot bin Laden and is hiding out now in Benghazi.  I have no proof but the more I think about it and the more I talk to my Texas friends, and the more I drink, the more I think it’s probably true that Big Foot and a Chupacabra were in on it.

By god, that’s enough sourcing for me.  I’m just going to write it.

You can’t prove Big Foot wasn’t there. And Mahler will therefore back me up.

My former colleague Mark Bowden, insists on more sourcing.  He punctures the New York Times sophistry far better than I in this article. 

As Mark puts it:

“It’s not often that the most distinguished journalistic institution in America wades so fully into the crackpot world of Internet theorizing, where all information, no matter its source, is weightless and equal.”

Then again, perhaps Bowden is on the conspiracy and Big Foot’s payroll.  I hope we hear from Silverstein and Mahler again soon.   I’m itching to get their take on JFK and the Moon Landing.

Here’s Mark again on Mahler:

“And on the basis of these journalistically weightless things, Mahler asks: ‘Where does the official bin Laden story stand now? For many, it exists in a kind of liminal state, floating somewhere between fact and mythology.'”

It’s more interesting to wonder how such a weightless article managed to work its way into The New York Times. Who would allow something  that is itself floating between fact and mythology to be published?

Well, Jake Silverstein, has some experience in this.  His first book, “Nothing Happened and Then It Did,” offers stories with what Booklist calls “an intriguing twist. half of them are fact and half of them are fiction. He has a great deal of fun tweaking boundaries and bending perceptions…”

Apparently, he’s still having fun.

Though one wonders whether he perceives the difference anymore between fact and faction.  He clearly has lost a sense of boundary — a state confirmed by the fact that he has waded into water so, so far over his head.

I‘m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

That classic song catches a bit of how I feel about the upcoming National Transportation Board Inquiry into the loss of the El Faro and her crew.

Oh, there will be honest men and women gathering facts and stitching them all together.  Did the cap do this?  Did the owners do that?Unknown

But lost in the review, almost certainly, will be an inquiry into whether very, very old ships like the El Faro should be left in service. It’s a good question because so very, very much of the American merchant marine is composed of so many very, very old ships.

Years back, when I was a maritime writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I was told by every maritime expert I met that a ship’s age made no difference in terms of safety.

Sure, 20 years was the suggested age for scrapping,  But you could run a ship twice the age, no problem.  It had been proven. Everyone in the business knew it.

It took me five years of simple, straightforward questions to determine that no bigger amount of bullshit had been fed to the reading public since the 1936 launch of Ferdinand the Bull.

Unknown-2More than 500 mariners had died aboard old rust buckets that developed problems peculiar to old ships with bad hulls, engines, condensers, hatches, anchors, and decks.  And when my partner, Tim Dwyer and I were done, a major ship line pleaded guilty to a felony criminal charge, and the Coast Guard scrapped more than 70 old ships

But I’m hearing the old Old Ships argument again in the wake of the sinking of the El Faro.  The fact that El Faro was twice the age of when most ships are scrapped had no impact, say the owners.  And there are many experts who back them up.

I came to think of it as the SS Dorian Gray Delusion.  No, I did not really think that ship owners had read the Picture of Dorian Gray and concluded that they could hang a picture of a ship that would age — but the ship would remain forever young, vital and strong.

They just acted that way.

So let me explain just how and where I found that all very old American merchant ships are a really bad bet in bad weather.

The chief breakthrough for me and for Tim came when dismayed professionals started sneaking me on to old rust bucket ships  One was the SS Penny, the sister ship of the lost SS Poet — whose entire crew never was found after sailing form Philadelphia in 1980. And here’s what we found — and wrote — about the SS Penny in the 1980’s

William Francis was asleep in the chief engineer’s compartment of the ship at 1 a.m. when he was awakened by a sharp thumping at his door.

”Chief, we got a big hole in the bottom, and I can’t pump the water out,” the night engineer shouted. Francis responded with an obscenity and rolled over in his bunk. The night engineer is drunk, he recalled thinking.

The thumping persisted.

“Chief, there is water pouring into the engine room, and we’re going to sink before daylight if we don’t stop it!” the night engineer called out again.

This time, Francis got up and begrudgingly pounded down the steel stairs to observe that, indeed, 14 tons of seawater an hour were pouring into the No. 6 double-bottom ballast tank, threatening to flood the ship’s engine room.

So it was in those days on board the SS Penny, floating at a dockside near Tampa, waiting for Coast Guard approval for one last trip across the Atlantic to deliver a government-sponsored cargo of fertilizer and then sail on to a scrapyard.

The Penny is very old and very rusty and, according to many who have worked or now work aboard her, prone to dangerous breakdowns. She is the twin sister ship of the SS Poet, which sank three years ago, killing 34 men, after leaving Philadelphia with another government-sponsored cargo.

Henry J. Bonnabel, operator of the Penny and former owner of the Poet, repeatedly has said that the Penny is safe.

On Oct. 15, a crew member dropped a sounding pole into the No. 6 tank to measure the depth of ballast. The pole struck bottom and punched right through the ship’s hull.

That was the leak that woke Francis.

Then, on Thursday, after the hole in the hull was patched and other repairs completed, the Penny set off on Coast Guard sea trials. Ordered by the Coast Guard to drop anchor, the Penny crew did, only to have the anchor break loose from its chain and plunge to the bottom of the sea.

If there are no further mishaps after the anchor is repaired and the Coast Guard gives the nod, the rusting 40-year-old vessel could depart for Africa one day this week.

Why is this World War II-era relic still sailing at twice the normal retirement age for the world’s merchant fleet? The answer is that government maritime policies aimed at providing economic support for a strong U.S. merchant fleet have provided financial incentive for the continued use of such ancient vessels.

A company controlled by Bonnabel has contracted with the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) to receive $1.7 million dollars for hauling the Penny’s cargo of phosphate fertilizer to Mombasa, Kenya. AID is required to place half its transportation orders with U.S. shipowners, as part of this country’s merchant-marine policy.

Bonnabel can be expected to receive $1 million when his ship reaches the scrapyard, probably in Pakistan or Taiwan, bringing his gross take from the Penny’s last voyage to about $2.7 million. He probably will pay out about $1.2 million in repair, crew and steaming costs, shipping experts say. If the Penny completes her voyage, Bonnabel’s profit will be no lower than $1 million, industry sources predict.

Last week, chief engineer Francis, 62, pumped and patched the Penny as he has for the five years he has worked for Bonnabel. His skill is near legend among the men who sail the old ships. A wiry, cussing, crotchety man, he would be living on his small ranch in Wyoming were it not for the fact that shipping companies seek him out and pay top dollar for his skill.

On a recent Saturday, however, he talked about the conditions aboard the Penny and his experiences aboard the old ships. Officials of his union, the Marine Engineers Benevolent Association (MEBA), sat aboard ship with him.

The union men, for the first time, were complaining publicly about conditions aboard the old ships that have claimed the lives of 65 American seamen in the last three years.

The interviews with Francis and Coast Guard and union officials, together with a visit to the ship at the invitation of the union, sketch a bleak picture of how ships in the condition of the Penny continue to sail.

The deck of the Penny is not rusted; it is rust. Piles of rust scale are raked up by the crew to knee height. Rust covers the hatches. Rust engulfs the winches and the doors. Pipes are rusted. Portholes are rusted. The ceiling of the ship’s forward chain locker is rusted through from the top. Rust discolors the white paint of the ship’s name and drips down the side of the ship in orange-red tears.

“Well, the circulator blew up yesterday, and the feed pump is giving us some problems, but mechanically the ship is fixed up better than on any other trip,” Francis said in his Wyoming drawl.

He drew in on a nonfiltered Pall Mall cigarette as he paged slowly through four legal-size pages of Coast Guard repair requirements on his desk. In his super-cool, air-conditioned cabin, sweat still streaked down his face from the steamy 100-degree heat of the engine room. Oil smudged his hands, face and the thin hair of his balding head. Salt from dried sweat edged his blue workman’s jump suit.

” ‘Course, that don’t mean she won’t break down a week from now when she’s out at sea,” Francis said. “You’re always going to have problems on these old ships. And ‘course, the work they’re doing now, they should have done last time, and got away without doing.”

Carleton Pirez, a former chief engineer of the Penny who often has sailed for Bonnabel, interrupted, leaning forward, a vein throbbing in his forehead as he talked forcefully and rapidly. He was representing the union.

“Look, I’ll tell you what this man wants, and what we all want,” he said. “For one thing, the wiring on these old ships is old, and it gets wet, and you can’t rely on it.

“That’s one of the chief problems. You never know what time of the day or night, what’s going to happen, what’s going to go, when you’re going to lose the plant (engine).

“You keep sweating that the son-of-a-bitch will keep going till you get into port, and you start sweating the most when you get caught in a storm, and you lose the plant. Then is when you never know, you never know what’s going to happen, and you really worry.

“The Penny was coming out of the Azores in a storm when the engine just

quit, and we were blowing toward the rocks, trying to get the engine started,” Pirez said. “It started up in five minutes that time, but there have been times when it takes days. You never know.

“This man here,” Pirez said, looking at Francis, “wants his fall-back units working. That’s all. You got two of most things in the engine room, two generators, say. He wants them all working when he starts out so when one of them goes wrong out there, which it will, he’s got a fighting chance.

“All he wants is a fair chance out there.”

Pirez finished and looked down at the floor. Francis looked straight ahead at no one, Pall Mall in hand, neither confirming nor denying what Pirez had said. A bemused smile spread over his face.

“Well,” Francis said after a moment. He spoke slowly, pausing as if to search for the last word of his sentence. When he found it, his face looked as if he had tasted a tablespoon of lemon juice.

“Let’s just say that the Penny is a ship that’s likely to make you sleep . . . lightly.”

The Penny was built in 1943 as a troop carrier christened the General Squires, and remodeled as a steel carrier in 1965. Bonnabel bought the vessel and an identical one named the Poet in 1979 after other steamship lines discarded them for the price of scrap.

The Poet sank after sailing for Egypt with a load of government corn. The cause of the loss was never discovered. Bonnabel expressed regret at the deaths of the 34 seamen.

Since then, he has sailed the Penny while major, vital repairs to the ship were pending.

For example, in 1980, the Penny sailed to East Africa. The vessel broke down more than a dozen times on its way to pick up grain in Texas. While crossing the Atlantic, the wheezy, old steam engines broke down again and again and again, leaving the ship floating without power. On the way back, it floated helplessly for two days off the Dry Tortugas in the Caribbean after its main bearing burned out. Francis angrily left the ship; Pirez signed on.

Francis signed on the Penny again in February of this year, when Coast Guard officials in Jacksonville allowed the vessel to postpone a badly needed drydocking and set sail for Egypt. Again it carried government grain.

Sources say the vessel immediately was forced to put into the Bahamas for emergency repairs to a hole in its No. 3 port double-bottom ballast tank. Water leaked from that forward hatch all the way back to the No. 6 tank through faulty pumping apparatus. The water entered the engine room in a 14- foot geyser, sources said. The vessel had taken a sharp tilt to port, before Francis demanded that it be stopped in Bermuda.

Later, the vessel took water into the No. 1 hatch, which was not watertight. The crew shoveled 100 tons of damaged grain over the side, according to a source. The fuel-oil pumps broke in Alexandria, Egypt, and had to be repaired. After leaving Egypt, the Penny was forced into port at Malta for repairs after it suffered another serious leak in its hull. A source on board the Penny said that when Francis entered the double-bottom ballast tank to inspect the hull from the inside of the ship, he saw that only a small plastic bag caught around the hole in the hull was keeping the seawater out.

“The bag looked like a mushroom, growing up out of the bottom,” the source said.

Francis disagreed with that story.

“More like a golf ball,” he said, holding his finger and thumb together in a circle. ” ‘Bout that size.”

Another officer of the Penny wrote a relative at that time:

“Here we are in Malta, with an anchor windlass that won’t work, two holes in the bottom of the ship, and various pumps and motors that don’t work in the engine room. If we hit a storm, if anything at all blows up, we’re finished. . . . I’ve never seen a worse ship, not even a Greek ship.”

Mishaps such as those suffered by the Penny endanger lives. The loss of power at sea deprives the master of maneuverability and makes a vessel prey to serious storms. Holes in a ship bottom pose obvious dangers.

“That is where we disagree,” Bonnabel once said in an interview. “The ships are safe. The Coast Guard has certified them safe. I have a responsibility to meet Coast Guard requirements. What else do you want?”

The Coast Guard has cracked down on the Penny.

After an old coal carrier called the Marine Electric sank in the North Atlantic off the Virginia coast in February claiming the lives of 31 Americans, a special traveling team of senior inspectors began monitoring the safety reviews of very old ships, including the Penny.

The Coast Guard said the Penny would not sail until all outstanding violations were corrected. And when Bonnabel said he wanted to carry grain to Africa and then scrap the ship, platoons of inspectors descended on the Penny to see if it merited a special one-way voyage certificate to Africa and then to a scrapyard in the Far East.

”We fully intend for the Penny to be completely up to standards,” Lt. Cmdr. Wayne Ogle of the Tampa Marine Safety Office of the U.S. Coast Guard said this summer. “We have living seamen on board this ship, and there is a lot of tough water on this trip.”

The Penny was put into drydock and found to be not up to snuff. The ship’s certificate – without which it cannot sail – was removed and placed in Coast Guard files in Tampa – not Jacksonville, whose Coast Guard unit earlier had approved a deferral of repairs to the ship.

That was in the spring. The ship lay dormant at dockside for months until suddenly, two weeks ago, Bonnabel resumed frantic repair work on the Penny, towed it to a wharf, loaded it with bagged fertilizer and requested that the Coast Guard resume its inspections of repair work.

“The fact that he has the ship loaded and has got a contract doesn’t change anything,” Ogle said. “The requirements hold. He won’t get anywhere with us arguing economics. He knows what he has to do.”

The four legal-size pages of Coast Guard requirements held firm. Bonnabel would have to make significant repairs to the deck, hatchcovers, hull and engine room. All told, a company official aboard the ship estimated to union officials that Bonnabel had spent $200,000 to fix up the old ship – a major expenditure.

Making such an expenditure to ready a ship for a one-way voyage to the scrap yard makes sense when the potential income is considered.

Lt. Cmdr. Ogle, dressed in a white jump suit and hard hat with blue U.S. Coast Guard insignia, seemed slightly disheartened as he prowled the rusted deck of the Penny last Sunday, clipboard at the ready.

“You heard about the hole in the hull?” he asked. Ogle then shook his head. “That has us more than a little bit upset.”

No one in the Coast Guard is empowered to say a ship is just too old to sail. The Coast Guard must come up with items to be repaired. If the owner repairs all the items, the Coast Guard cannot keep it from sailing – even if systems on the old ships fail with great regularity once they go to sea.

And there is no movement toward a policy that sets age limits on the ships. Adm. James S. Gracey, the Coast Guard commandant, recently testified that age should not be the only criterion for judging the condition of a ship and that the Coast Guard system of inspections was working well.

“Increased age of a ship does not bring the inevitable conclusion of unseaworthiness,” Gracey said.

The U.S. House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee also recently eliminated from its staff-written bill a provision that would deny cargo to very old U.S. ships, making the same argument. Good maintenance and good inspections can assure the safety of the old ships, said U.S. Rep. Mario Biaggi (D., N.Y.), chairman of the merchant marine subcommittee.

That argument that does not impress the Penny crewmen. The best of the Coast Guard inspectors examined the ship. Bonnabel agreed to spend the money to fix it up.

Most systems were essentially approved and ready to sail when the sounding rod knocked a hole in the ship’s hull last Saturday. .

“You lower it down, it hits the bottom plate,” Francis said. “Do that for 40 years, and of course it wears away at the striking plate.”

“We went over every inch of that hull,” Ogle said, shaking his head. ”Then the sounding rod punches through the bottom.”

The Coast Guard inspectors become frustrated by it all. “You saw the condition of that ship, pretty indicative of the company’s attitude toward things” Ogle said. “It is unfortunate that we have to deal with that kind of attitude toward running a ship.”

Recently, Coast Guard Capt. T.L. Valenti tried to apply some pressure on Bonnabel and his officers by asking them to sign a statement affirming that the Penny was seaworthy. Valenti wrote in a letter dated Oct. 14:

“I firmly believe the owner of the vessel, master and chief engineer share the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the vessel and crew.”

The issue raised in Valenti’s letter puts more pressure on the Penny’s officers than on Bonnabel.

They are caught between a rock and a hard place, union officials say. If they object to safety problems, Bonnabel can easily replace them.

And if they sail a ship they know is unseaworthy – and say so – the Coast Guard can pull their license to sail.

The double bind produces strange scenes. Francis was suddenly silent in his cabin, while union officials fidgeted in their chairs. The plain-speaking chief engineer was asked a straightforward question. Was the Penny safe?

Francis did not reply. Barney Snow, the officers union representative from New Orleans, spoke instead.

“Now you have to be careful how you phrase these questions, or you could get our boys in some real trouble,” he said. “If he’s going to sail this ship, he can’t tell you this ship is unsafe. I can tell you that, and that the union is tired of sailing on these old rustbuckets. But if that man there tells you that, well, the Coast Guard would be all over him in a minute.”

So Francis skirts that issue. And Snow explains that a lesser engineer would not even dare speak to a reporter, for fear of being fired.

Bonnabel needs only to dismiss his officers from the MEBA and hire new ones from a competitive union – the Masters, Mates and Pilots (MMP). The same holds true for the crew. If the Seafarer’s International Union (SIU) complains about conditions aboard a ship, the owner then can hire members of the competitive National Maritime Union (MNU). Or vice versa.

Indeed, Bonnabel-owned or operated ships have a crazy-quilt mixture of unions on board. The Penny’s corporation, American Coastal and Foreign Shipping Co., uses MEBA officers and SIU crews. Another, Hawaiian Eugenia Corp., a company that owned the Poet and is controlled by Bonnabel, lists MMP for the captain and mates, MEBA for the engine-room officers. Still another, Atlantic Marine Agencies Inc., partly owned by Bonnabel, runs the old ship the California, with MMP officers and NMU crews.

And even if the problem of competitive unions were eliminated, the scarcity of work discourages complaints.

“Those young third-assistant engineers you saw in the engine room don’t have any choice but to be here,” Snow said. “They’ve been waiting for 14 months to get a ship.

“They don’t like this one? Well, the only thing they can do is get back in line and wait another 14 months.”

So it is that the Coast Guard and the officers become both allies and adversaries. Ship officers cannot easily state that a ship is unseaworthy. Yet they often root quietly for the Coast Guard inspectors, union officials say.

Few officers speak up. Few crew members file safety complaints. Francis is the exception. “He don’t care,” Snow said. “He’s always going to get jobs.” But even crusty Bill Francis will not comment directly on the seaworthiness of the Penny. Neither will he reply to Capt. Valenti’s request by affirmatively verifying the ship’s safety.

“Well, the Coast Guard asked me to sign a letter on seaworthiness,” Francis said. “I ain’t a-gonna do it. . . . That’s their job.”

one-cool-rusty-project-1939-chevrolet-coe2The refusal will not stop the Penny, however. Valenti’s request does not have the force of law. Bonnabel easily could hire an engineer to sign the letter. The week after the Marine Electric sank, seamen in a Philadelphia hiring hall said they would be glad to sign on the old coal carrier if she pulled up to the dock that day.

The danger aboard the vessels in the American merchant marine, where 38 percent of the ships are more than 20 years old and 22 percent have passed age 30, leads to a black-humored jocularity among ships’ officers.

“I don’t think I want to work anymore on that hole in No. 6 tonight – how much water have we got under us right now, capt’n? ” Francis said. The whine of his drawl set small smiles on the faces of the other officers, who were sipping whiskey and swapping stories in the cozy cabin.

“I think I’ll sleep well tonight,” Francis said. His cabin is well above the engine room, but two decks below the other officers. “I don’t think the water will get up near this far when she sinks,”

“Oh, no, the water will come up this far,” another officer replied. “It won’t go up another deck where I’ll be sleeping.”

The smiles spread. The stories continue. Francis chuckles.

Bonnabel has complained that news reports, not the Penny’s condition, had scared the Coast Guard into thinking she was unsafe. “We will compare records with any line,” he said. “That is the state of the industry. You should have spread out the blame much earlier.”

The problems experienced by the old ships operated by Bonnabel are not typical of major lines, in the opinion of Snow, the MEBA official.

But Roger Szoboda, an engineering consultant based in New Orleans hired by the union to review the Penny, said the Penny was no worse than many other ships he had seen run by major lines.

“As the business goes, the Penny isn’t in bad shape,” he said. “It’s just like an old car. You can fix it up. Get it running pretty good. You can do your best on it.

“You look it over. Everything’s fine. That doesn’t mean a wheel won’t fall off when you take it out of the driveway.

“There is a ‘one-trip-more’ mentality among the unions, the owners and the inspectors,” Szoboda added. ” ‘Let’s fix her up so she can make one more trip. Well, it isn’t fixed right, but let’s let her go because she’s only going to make one more trip.’ “

Usually, there is one more trip. And a trip after that. And a trip after that, he said.

But last week, some of the Penny officers decided against making one more trip.

At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, two hours before sea trials, the master of the Penny resigned, after an argument with the company concerning supplies. He was replaced.

The third-mate of the ship, telling union officials he wanted “a long and pleasant life,” also resigned. He was replaced. His replacement, after coming on board the ship, resigned a few minutes later.

“He was replaced by a mate so dead broke he couldn’t pay his union dues,” an MEBA official said.

So there’s always a desperate captain or mate who will take out the old ships.  And the owners will always say there was no undue pressure to run unsafe ships.

And directly, they are correct.  Indirectly, of course, the pressure is there.

Thus did the Old Ships sail then. Thus do they sail now.

Theoretically, the “experts” are right.  Old Ships can be fixed up to be safe.  For a period of time.  But they do not sail in theory.  They sail in heavy seas.

They do not sail for a period of time.

They sail forever.

I style myself an author at times and so when some professional mariner friends of mine were talking shop and the blues, I stifled the urge to impress them with my book-knowledge this summer and like a good author listened to the dialogue as the two captains talked.  The Chesapeake Bay stretched out in star lit grandeur before us as the tree frogs croaked on the Eastern Shore and we sipped our beers.

The one cap says to the other:

“Well, are you just tired of it, or bored, or what? If you don’t like what you’ve been doing, have you thought about the Puerto Rican runs or something?”

“Looked at that, and I may have to do it if I want to work,” my friend said. Then he took a long sip on his beer and in a few seconds said,

“Went inside one of the tugs to look it over.”

The other captain started nodding silently knowing what was coming.

“They had harnesses on the seats,” my friend said, “and they weren’t tucked in or anything.  You belt yourself in on those rides they are so rough, and when I looked up at the ceiling of the cabin, there are paint smears.”

“Holy crap,” I interrupted, blowing the whole debonair listener act.  “The ride is so rough you have to wear helmets and you knock your heads on the ceiling so hard you leave paint there? You have to go out in those kinds of seas?”

Both men nodded back at me.

Welcome to the world of maritime officers circa 2015.  My friends are tugboat captains — not in the same trade of the El Faro container ship lost at sea on the Puerto Rico run, but first cousins or brothers even to those mariners. And just as skilled — and just as pressured.

They know the real world of tight schedules and the “you gotta go out” world of modern shipping.  And odds are, they may well have to take one of those tugboat jobs pushing big barges from the mainland to Puerto Rico in the Jones Act Trade.

The Jones Act assures jobs for US merchant crew and officers. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that US ships must be used.  You may think that’s a good home town feature and real synergy.  The reality is few ships are built in US shipyards because of the cost — which can be six or seven times the cost of ships built elsewhere.  US yards cater to military construction and premium dollars — not the sort of mass construction we developed in World War II.

The result is that very old ships and tugs are kept in service.  Many of them are just fine.  Owners may have the best of intentions.  But they are old.  The ships are so few and so old that companies cobble together big barge and tug rigs and run those in the trade, even if it means bull ride like conditions and concussions.

And the ships and the tugs are run hard, very hard.  The pace of shipping has accelerated so over the years that a captain from the 1950s would not recognize today’s world.  Once, you had four or five days to unload a ship before you moved to the next port.  These days, that can be measured in hours.

Shipping is a commodity business. Commodity or bulk cargoes I learned once are those that can be “pumped, dumped or poured.” But the lives of men and the lives of ships are not commodities.  They cannot be moved like barrels of oil or grains of sand.  They cannot be pumped, dumped and poured.  And yet the commerce of shipping attempts to do that and treat them as if they were units.

They break down, these lives and these ships.  And that is what we saw this week with El Faro and the 33 humans on board — who may now be lost.

The company executives — who may be among the best in the business — concede the ship was 40 years old.  But that was not a factor, even though most ships are considered overage past 20 years — the normal lifetime of a ship.

The company executives concede there was a work crew of five Polish nationals on board to work on the engine.  But that was not a factor — even though the engine failed and left the ship without steerage in the path of a hurricane.

The company executives assured everyone the captain was not pressured into making the run — even though every captain I know would blow out hot coffee if repeated those words; then they would explain to you patiently that all companies pressure all captains all the time in all ways to make that run.

So as the search continues for some further sign of the El Faro my thoughts are with three groups of people:

  • The survivors — and I pray there are survivors — of the ship that sank anyway.
  •  My friends who may need to make that Puerto Rico run — in a tug-barge combo that bounces their heads off the ceiling.
  • The owners of the ship and shipping company who seem to have explained to everyone — and their own consciences — that a 40-year-old ship — with a flying crew repairing the engine while the ship was underway heading into hurricane country — was in such great shape it could not have possibly sunk. Until surprisingly, it did.

In the end, it may be that last group that will one day most need our prayers and forgiveness, But for now, I’m going with groups one and two.

UnknownThe SS El Faro, missing in the Carribbean, was ten years old when colleague Tim Dwyer and I published “Death Ships” in The Philadelphia Inquirer about the wreck of the SS Marine Electric off the coast of Virginia.  My hope is we would never see another Marine Electric tragedy in my lifetime, but it appears we have.

Listing, her engine out, the El Faro faced near identical conditions of those of the Marine Electric.  The one bright spot of the Marine Electric was the survival of three brave men who testified about conditions in the merchant marine.  My prayer is that far more than that are found and rescued by the Coast Guard.

It’s too early to draw conclusions about what happened to the El Faro, but it’s far too late to ignore the basic state of the merchant marine. El Faro was 40 years old .  That’s not just old in ship terms.  That’s doubly “overage” — twice the expected lifetime of a modern ship.

One wishes that was a strange occurrence. It is not.

There are 192 American flag ships today, most of them in the coastal trades or carrying government and Food for Peace cargoes.

Of those 192, nearly half — 97 of them — are 20 years or older, the normal lifetime of a ship.  Past this age, ships are insured as “overage.”

But wait.  It doesn’t get better.

Seventy-four are 30 years or older — another ten years past the age at which most ships are retired and scrapped.

And 24 are 40 years old or older.

News stories and government officials and expert officials have said that just because the El Faro was 40 years old does not mean it was a dangerous ship.

This is what I was told over and over again in the 1980’s when I was the maritime writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer.  Then, as now, even old ships were valued because “American bottoms” got you into the lucrative coastal trades and the public grain trades.  Even with old ships, you could pull a subsidized profit from guaranteed rates or government contracts — often three times the world rate.

In this system, it paid to keep the ships running because building new ships in American yards was a very expensive proposition.

The problem with old ships, of course, is that they are as safe, say as a 1936 Packard.  You can tend to them dutifully.  You can polish them, paint them, fix them, even rebuild them. But they are fundamentally old systems and old systems break and bend when you least expect them. They are fit for maritime parades and ceremony, not commerce. This is why you don’t see UPS running a fleet of 1975 Mack Trucks into winter blizzards.

As an officer who sailed on El Faro told me:

Why do shipping companies continue to operate ships when then are double their expected lifespan? There is one easy answer: Greed. 

Old ships like an old car are cheep. Old ships can be bought for a song. The Puerto Rico was laid up for many years, her bottom intentionally stuck in the mud, to make sure she didn’t drift off. She was pulled out of the mud and put into service under a new name. She got to be too old for some of the backers of that operation and she was let go. Eventually she got another new name; El Faro. She wasn’t the first and not the last old ship that was kept going because, when you are not investing in ships, you sure can look good on that yearly report. 

One reason that laws were enacted to make sure that ships in the American trade were american build was to bolster up the American ship building industry. The American ship building industry is about gone now. Why? Because the shipping companies found that with a lack of newly built American ships they are able to pressure the Coast Guard to keep certifying the old death traps for service. By keeping the old ships running for so long and not building ships in the United States they effectively drove the American ship building industry out of business. The few remaining yards cater to the military and smaller commercial vessels. 

This a win / win proposition for the shipping companies and their investors. You might think that letting their crews die would cut into their profits, but no. They pay off the families with money from insurance. They hope there are no survivors. Especially the rare ones who refuse to take the pay off and shut up. After all who wants another Bob Cusick running around telling the most inconvenient truth about how they run their ships.

They are making good profits by not investing in ships, and when finally the Coast Guard says, “enough” they will be able to point to the shipyards and say, “We can’t build American ships, so let us build them overseas for the American trade. And since you have given in on the American build rule, it is about time you let us flag them in other countries and crew them with people who will work for reasonable wages. That way you won’t have to worry about any more Americans dying on cargo ships.”

They continue to make money and we lose more jobs.

I could not have said it better.

My friend Tom Masland and I had a running joke about the Chicago Tribune Company when he worked there as a correspondent — and as I considered years ago accepting a job there as their “Big Foot” correspondent.

The paper and the company, we agreed, was the Baby Huey of newspapers — a huge and powerful force, which through sheer unawareness and stupidity blundered badly and unintentionally destroyed much good that it was attempting to accomplish.  Babyhuey

Times have changed of course.  Tom moved on to a great career at Newsweek and I entered the business world and newspaper publishing.

The Tribune Company is no longer huge and powerful, either.

Just blundering and stupid.

There are several measures of this — none of them flowing from my nostalgic years as a journalist, all of them from hard business metrics.

The stock has lost two-thirds of its value under its current CEO in little more than a one-year tenure.

Other print-media companies of course aren’t exactly running with the bulls at Pamplona — but even there Tribune Publishing exhibits its Baby Huey complex.  Others are down 20 percent or more from their highs this year.  TPUB?  More than 60 percent.

But even more spectacular is the affect the company has had on community.  This is important because with a community of readers, a newspaper trades at a premium. Without it, a newspaper is nothing if not in decline.

There is a special status newspapers have — the one industry recognized in the Constitution.  If you don’t have the heart and mind of the community, you don’t have a newspaper.  And you don’t have a healthy business.

The publisher of the Los Angeles Time — an ex-invesment banker, not some journalistic dreamer — appeared to be on his way to achieving that.  At least, when Tribune Publishing fired him abruptly in September, several dozen community leaders petitioned the company to reinstate him and give the Los Angles Times back to Los Angeles.

The company did not of course, and instead ordered cost-cutting — and watched as its stock plummeted another 15 percent.

The stock drop may have something to do with this: newspaper publishing economics are to real economics what astrology is to astronomy.  Yes, both are interesting, but you don’t want to base a moonshot on the fact that you happen to be ascendant Virgo with sun sign in Scorpio.

Yet newspaper publishers use this “science” all the time.  There is an astrologic version of economics that goes like this.  In a content creation business, you can create value by cutting content and increasing price.  The industry has its own special rules of economic behavior that can only be explained by this theorem.  “Our content is so bad, you’ll gladly pay more to read less of it”

That’s never worked.  Ever.  Nor did Ford Motor Company, for example, turnaround sales through thinning its paint and cutting its gas mileage.  Such economic behavior does not exist in the real world.

The solution?

One local leader suggested the company sell the Los Angles Times to Warren Buffett.  Others hoped for a Washington Post scenario — where billionaire Jeff Bezos pumped in resources and technology.  Still others cast their eyes to Philadelphia where local leaders fought off the advances of a multi-millionaire political boss. And there also was a move to take the newspaper “private.”

My solution?

Tribune Publishing should own the whole Baby Huey thing — and take it dark.  Put a pirate’s patch eye on the duck and play to its strength.  Make the fact that they are really bad and really blundering a virtue.

In short, Tribune Publishing should recognize what happened at the Philadelphia Inquirer and capitalize on the trend there — a sort of legal kidnapping of an important institution.

The morals are awful. But the ransoms could be good business.

Take Philadelphia as an example.

In Philadelphia, a local machine boss of some means had moved to take control of the newspaper.  Only through the surfacing of a responsible billionaire was the newspaper saved — through the payment of a premium price.  The political hack was hurt — but walked out with millions in profit.

Tribune Publishing could run the same shakedown in Los Angeles and each of the cities in which it owns big newspapers.

Going Dark Baby Huey on all of them, could scare the responsible millionaires of each city into coughing up a premium for the local franchise.

Yes, it’s a version of the old Spanish Prisoner scam. Or the poster, “Buy Our Album or We’ll Shoot This Dog.”

But it could give Tribune Publishing something it does not have now:

A working business strategy.

First the good news.

Cryotherapy — ice water circulating over my surgically repaired tendons — helped me heal quickly.

These are very cool devices (pun intended) and pretty cheap in the context of medical devices: about $100 to $200.  I’m actually thinking of buying one on Amazon for treatment of chronic knee problems.

Now the bad news.

41iNT8P3YOLFrequently, the medical device providers charge patients and their health insurers rental charges of $15,000 for two week’s time. (See LA Times story here.)

Repeat. No misplaced commas. $15,000 for a machine that costs $200. Two weeks at 75 times the total purchase price.

If we were talking cars, that means Hertz would charge me $1.2 million for a Chevy Cruz.

Who makes that sort of deal? Who can get away with that sort of deal?Unknown

I’m going to audit my bill I’ve got good insurance — and a good attorney — and I do not fear getting stuck with the bill.

But we ALL get stuck with the bill in something like this.

Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics to Pretty Boy Floyd in the 1930’s.

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.


And some, it would seem, would use the Cryo 220 Super Cool. My guess is even Pretty Boy would be outraged at that sort of immoral conduct.

Of “Bomb Clocks,” Engineers and the $70 Million High School Football Stadium

Some 19.6 miles from the Texas school where a smart 14-year-old kid with a dream of being an engineer was arrested the other day, a high school is building a $20 million stadium for its football players.

And 30 miles in the other direction, stands a $60 million high school football stadium.

The smart money says that if the kid, Ahmed Mohamed, could juke and run a quick slant pattern, he would have gotten an A+ just for being able to tell time.

But that’s all speculative.

What we do know is that he was so smart that he was able to build an electronic clock at home, and so proud that he brought it in to school.

But in see-something, say-something America, his English teacher dimed him out to the coppers. The teacher, who read a lot but not widely, was fearful the circuit board was some sort of bomb.   The police handcuffed the student and agreed there was reason to be suspicious.

There wasn’t and he was released.

As to policy and apologies, the school officials paced and paced, deliberated on the matter, and rubbed their chins with knuckles calloused from dragging on the coarse Texas soil.  The mouth breathers are sticking by the story and say it was a judicious act given all the givens. They wouldn’t want to encourage this type of behavior, after all.

Purely coincidentally, we also know these facts, about the wisdom of other school officials and their priorities.

That three-year-old $60 million football stadium?

It has been closed for the past 15 months because of structural problems.  It’s being re-opened — after $10 million of fixes.

“It was just so tremendously expensive to go back after the building was done, to go back and add bracing where we had to and remove a lot of the architecture,” said the school officials


It’s hard to get good engineers these days.  No one knows why.

“We’ll Serve No Swine/Before Its Time” says the bright winking pink and blue neon sign of my favorite barbecue juke joint on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Would it be that my friends at The Philadelphia Inquirer had eaten there and learned the wisdom of those words before serving up a heaping dose of journalistic trichinosis to its readers last week.

Make no mistake. I continue to be a big Inquirer fan. It’s fine dinin’ 99 percent of the time.

But having defended the bunch of them earlier this year, and waxed semi-eloquently about the need for great journalism, I do have the need to point out when the meat of a story is, well, a tad undercooked.

Such was the case with a piece headlined broadly, Why an Accused Philadelphia Police Officer is Still on the Force.

The top of the piece has the feel of one of those August thumbsuckers where editors used to say, “Kid, go through some files make a couple of calls and update this case, will ya. Things are slow.”

The resulting 800 word story would be headlined, “Hoffa, Still Dead, Missing.”

But here there is news — albeit buried 372 painfully constructed words down from the lede. It takes that long for the Inky to accuse two reporters from The Philadelphia Daily News of “complicating a federal investigation.”

The Inquirer does this based on a leaked task force report that says a victim of an officer’s groping attempts told FBI agents the reporters gave her some money among other bad things. The Daily News reporters deny they did anything wrong, but the impression left by the story, indeed the whole reason for the story, seems to be to raise the question of impropriety of the reporters and suggest their actions obstructed justice in the case.

In this, there is nothing wrong. The news media does not get a pass from criticism.

Except that the controversy here is old. It already had been aired in public through charges by the Fraternal Order of Police and the police commissioner in July

So why wind up the clock stem of this story so tightly as if there was something new? When there was not except for The Inquirer’s access to the records and the investigation?

None, really, except that the police through selective media leaks, get a chance to smear their accusers and blame “the media” for its problem of enabling a guy who for at least a decade, it appears, groped women routinely.

The Inky, after an exhaustive trek through police leaked files, does not in its grandly headlined story actually examine why the guy remains on the force.  That would involve a thorough look at  the police administrative code, union rules, police culture, or mis-steps by the initial investigators or any of the policeman’s superiors.

Nor does it stress with any passion or importance the changing stories of an unsettled woman who seems to have undone her own case and whose mother says actually blames herself for the groping.

Instead, it burns through 4,896 painfully vivisected words to note that The Inquirer in “taped interviews” confronted the two Daily News reporters.

(Journ students take note:  A “taped interview” is always recommended when you are investigating journalistic colleagues for “complicating a federal investigation.”  It shows that you are serious about your work and know technology.)

Well, good for them. I guess. As said, reporters are not immune from criticism.

On the other hand, neither should media criticism deviate from the rules of common sense and good journalism.

The Gene Roberts “Golden Era” of journalism was famous for printing stories that won Pulitzer Prizes, but less obviously it was famous for the numbers of stories it did not print. Legends who have walked Inquirer halls can tell you about that. How a task force worked a story for two years about the corruption of a major national candidate  (Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s vice presidential candidate) only to conclude that there were only smears there, not hard facts and firm links.  The story never ran and no one felt any sense of a “cover up.”  “Chief-dammit-I-know-there’s-something-in-here-somewhere” journalism never played large on the Inky marquee.

My suggestion is that such wise counsel might have come into play here. My own gut feeling is that The Inquirer did not run the piece to spite the competition, but out of its own perplexity about what to do with the story. Given the information, what choices did it have? Spike the story entirely and it runs the risk of a cover up.

The right move might have been a 500 word story on Page 43 of the Metro section, below the fold with the lede as this:

“A special task force raised the question of whether two reporters for The Daily News influenced the testimony of a witness in a high profile police abuse case, but both reporters explicitly denied the charges, citing a pattern of police leaks aimed at discrediting criticism of police corruption.”

But by going with it large, by inflating the context, by suggesting the rival reporters, not the police, were responsible for the blown prosecution, The Inky has done something I never thought I would see happen.

It got played by the cops.

The Philadelphia Police Department and its union, unable to explain how they can protect, nurture and serve a serial groper and a culture of corruption, did what comes naturally. They dissembled.

But they were smart about it. Through the new communication science of “really sneaky selective leaking,” they also managed to discredit those who criticized them.

But here is the truly wicked twist that racks up the points on the public relations communications pin ball machine for the police.

The police not only groped the reporters who wrote about the gropings.

They got The Inquirer to do the groping for them.

bob frump pic

There are a lot of facts emerging from the Zimmerman-Martin trial, but few truths.

Here is one, I know for sure.

If you decide to carry a gun, consider the complex consequences you carry with you.  Because the barrel does indeed shoot both ways.

I say this as a walking paradox. I am a life-long liberal who grew up in farm county and believe owning and shooting a gun is almost second nature in life.  I support the Second.  I also favor sane regulations of guns — also cars, train locomotives, airplanes, acids and napalm.

And I say this as someone who probably can shoot better than 80 percent of rock-ribbed right wingers who watched too many Red Dawn reruns. I have been thoroughly trained through many days of courses in the use of guns for self-defense, distance shooting and, well, assaults with assault rifles.

Hundreds of hours at gun ranges and classes mean I can put two rounds into a pie-plate target five football fields away with a good spotter, and also dump and reload an assault rifle magazine  while covering my field of fire with a pistol.  I grew up hunting pheasants from age 10 and am a passable wing shot.

For a short period of time, I also carried a loaded gun with me constantly.

I did all these things while living in Texas not because I felt the need for protection.

I was working on a book about the gun culture and I figured to know it, I needed to be in it. The book was at first intended to expose the ease with which powerful weapons can be purchased — and it will someday, given the right publisher.

But I also learned as I was learning about the gun culture that despite the blowhard exterior rhetoric, inside elements are far more responsible than my fellow Easterners and big city liberals might think.  And more responsible than the Glen Beck bozo gun proponents who get most of the face time on television.

My concealed carry handgun instructor at DFW Gun in Dallas did not tell me how to shoot punks for fun.  He told me to run.

He told us — in 2010 — that the luckiest day in his life was when he did not in effect become Zimmerman.  He went into a liquor store where a teenager with a huge revolver had the clerk at bay.  The instructor’s pistol was in his pickup — left behind in the glove compartment.

We all expected this to be a warning about how you should never forget your gun.

Instead, it was the instructor’s grateful tale of how he did NOT confront the kid with a gun. Instead, the instructor managed to talk the kid down.  In truth, the kid had no intent of harming anyone but himself. He was seeking “suicide by cop.” The police did not oblige the kid and took him into custody — where he calmed down, got some care and lived a fairly normal life.

“What would I have done for the rest of my life if I had shot that kid?”” the instructor asked.  “If I had had the gun, I would have used it.  How would I feel.. if I had….shot…that…kid?

Every time you carry a gun, keep this story in mind.  What consequences will you have even in a righteous shooting if you kill someone — even someone guilty as hell?  You think you just walk away from that because you were right?”

You don’t. Plenty of study show that the barrel shoots both ways. Even our toughest warriors feel some sort of guilt, remorse or a sense of “something unnatural” after they have killed, however “cleanly” following rules of warfare, even a worthy cause. Near as they can tell, it seems to be built into our social DNA.

In Texas, I fell in with some retired Army colonels who had been in combat. You could assume these guys were tough. They were. But they were also smart and had seen the real consequences of guns shots — not just a video game or a movie. To be clear, they are ardently pro-gun.

The discussion one night fell upon a ranch a hundred miles or so south of them where “coyotes” — ruthless guides of illegal immigrants — had threatened ranch hands and fired at them.

“Why not just buy the ranch hands rifles for defense?” I asked. “If ever it would be justified, that would be it, right?”

We were in a hunting cabin with several semi-automatic rifles safely stored nearby. My friends had made it clear they were no fans of immigrants. So I thought it was a question that would be received well.

They were silent for a moment, and looked at each other. There was no eye rolling. Just a polite click of the eyes back and forth between them to me as if I had mud on my nose but it was too embarrassing to mention.

“You have second and third order effects,” my friend finally said.

“It sounds like a good plan,” he said. “The first order effect could more or less be handled if you kill the coyote or drug smuggler, or whatever, and they don’t kill you back.”

“But the consequences of actually shooting a person and living with that….” he said, and paused. “….that’s the second and third order effects. Liability might be one effect.  Your own mental well-being almost certainly will be another and it will work on you for a very, very long time.

“It takes a lot for soldiers to do that and live with it. Civilians? Well. It’s just not a good plan if you think of what you are really paying and what you are getting… You might have a few days peace, your cattle will be safe for a while, but you have a lifetime to think about what you did…and you will…”

Even if you know that though, guns can you lead you on. glock

Even if you are more or less playing a role, as I was, you feel a little too empowered sometimes.

Or so it was for me.

The four days I “carried,” I felt stupid most of the time.  I have trouble keeping track of an iPhone.  A mean little .380 Ruger automatic wasn’t much bigger and I had to struggle not to unconsciously take it out of my pocket and put it on a desk and then walk away head down on some article. There was one moment at work in my office job when I nearly “answered” my Ruger at a meeting when the iPhone rang. Instruction or not, this was awkward.

But the clincher for me was my driving.

I’m not an aggressive driver, but I’m not passive either.  I hold my own on packed highways and I don’t like being cut off.  I am not troublesome about it. I just get frustrated and mumble sometimes. “Idiot.” “Thanks pal.” “Real nice!” And my favorite: “Come on lady (fella, kid, grandma, grandpa)!” And “Go already!” That was the worst of it.

With the gun on board, I drifted toward troublesome.  If someone cut me off, I was unconsciously aware of that gun and went just a little faster on the car-villains tail or honked the horn a little longer. The self-muttering became more pronounced and profane.  I would pat the gun to make sure it was there and drive a bit faster, yell a bit louder.

And somewhere in there, I became aware of that. And hung the gun up, never to carry it again. It was empowering me all right. But empowering toward what? An argument over a traffic slight? Lethal force to settle a fender bender?

Confronting a 17-year-old kid?

I am a writer by trade and what floated back to me was some advice to writers from Chekov.


“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

And this anonymous saying:  “When your tool is a hammer, you see the world ‘s problems as nails.”

If my tool was a Ruger, how was I seeing the world? And where would that take me?  If I did not intend to use the gun, why was I so to speak hanging it on the wall in the first act?

I believe the right to carry carries awesome responsibility that only a very few of us can handle — and that I could not, despite all my training.  It confers incredible power upon the carrier.  And it invites catastrophe if that power leads to confrontations that would not ordinarily take place.

Guns shoot both ways, folks. Believe it. There are “first order” effects when the gun throws a slug at a target.

But the “second and third order” events come hurtling back quick toward the shooter — in terms of liability and psychological impairment.

I wish Mr. Zimmerman — if only for his own sake — had gotten the gun instructor who warned me about this simple fact.  I wish the macho pro Stand Your Ground advocates were also next to me in that class.

And I wish most of all that responsible gun owners — not  those rooting-on tragic confrontations such as the Zimmerman case — would dispense wisdom and caution in a loud enough voice to rise above the din.

“Buy the Wall Street Journal,” a good friend of mine advised. “You get two papers for the price of one.”
He was referring of course to the notorious split between the right-wing editorial page and the respected newsroom. You got paranoid conspiracy theories on the editorial page, first rate Pulitzer winning reporting elsewhere. For the most part, the proposition remains true. Two papers in one.
By that standard, The New York Times these days is even a better deal. Not is it just two papers for the price of one, it is the Sybil of modern journalism, with a number of personalities wrapped within, none of them at times understanding that the others exist.

Let’s start with the good personalities.

1 — The Artisan.  Day-after-day, routinely, you won’t find better tradecraft. A regional correspondent in Florida can file a story in my odd speciality — maritime safety –on the sinking of the SS El Faro and it’s informed, revelatory. Nowhere else will you find 800 well-formed words about the coming election in Tanzania.
2. — Super Sleuther. Great investigative reporting. Amazon work culture, fake Tea Party PACs, Apple taxes and outsourcing. The Times brings incredible resources to bear on important issues.
3 — The Serious Shooter. Some of the greatest photo journalism on the planet. Period.

Now let’s move on to the dark side:

4. — Sloppy Sleuther. Investigative and in-depth reports so flawed one wonders how they cleared the runway.  The recent Hillary Papers, with huge mistakes and exaggerations, exceeded any standard of measured journalism.  The magazine’s piece on Osama bin Laden drew new, low standards in journalism, both in its reporting and its editing. (Add the odd John McCain pieces from 2008 into these curious occurrences.  That was awhile ago, but the stories were whoppers.)
5. — The Content Columnist. Name columnists who are so stale, most seem to be phoning it in as a ghost parody of what a columnist should be.
6.– The Roaming Reviewer. The Sunday Review should perhaps be renamed the Sunday WTF.  The old opinion section of the Sunday paper still contains the editorials, but its lede story and a third of its content have been turned over to pop-psych, self-help type features and tired essays on how California ain’t what it used to be. It looks like the Style section.

And the strange side:

7. — The Serious Stylist.  The Style section more resembles what the Review should be, with substantive analytical pieces about new versions of capitalism, and real cultural changes in the real California.

8 — The Insider .  The “premium pay” service at $8 a month, which takes you behind the scenes as Times reporters fashion the news and editors debate how it is made.

I’ve not tried that last one.  But perhaps someone senior at the Times might want to give it a test run.  It might make Sybil a bit more integrated.

What’s the overall affect?

Not bad, really.  It’s frustrating to see some of the standards slip.  The Review section does a disservice to public debate, I think, because it forfeits an important traditional role.   Huge issues exist that are given cartoon treatment on television news.  The Times needs to play an important role here.  The Review arguably is the most formidable part of The Fourth Estate.  But it’s gone on sabbatical and hippie year abroad.  That’s fine for editors — but not for whole sections.

The pluralism of voices is interesting.The idea that the Times is a federation of sections is not new, of course.  The culture and history is filled with rivalries between bureaus and home-desks. No one would want them to speak with one voice.

One does expect one basic standard of journalism, however, and alas on some of the investigative and magazine stuff, one part of Sybil — like the Carrie character in Homeland — seems to think she does her best work off her meds.

Some stronger personality might want to nudge this Sybil back to following the general rules of journalism — strive for the truth and provide information which the public may act upon with affect.

Comes now Joe Nocera, journalistic hero of mine, to throw his weight on the side of those who think it’s legitimate to suggest Big Foot might have killed bin Laden.

Okay, he doesn’t exactly say that, but in endorsing the legitimacy of the New York Times magazine article on confusion over how bin Laden was killed, he endorses a type of “journalism” where facts and beliefs are co-equal and legitimate to express as if one were the other.

A valid piece of media criticism on Osama bin Laden reporting would be welcome; the New York Times piece was not. It threw out a few discredited assertions from Hersh and then ventured into the hysterical world of internet rumor and conspiracy theory. It brought nothing new to the party — and then just said flatly we have no idea as to what happened.
Why should Joe Nocera and Mark Bowden be upset about this? Because it does not critique journalism process and trade craft. It ignores it. Of course, we will learn more about bin Laden’s death. That does not mean we know nothing now. Of course, Nocero is learning more about the meltdown, but he would be less generous if the New York Times would report that he was conned by the government completely and we know nothing of it.
And that is Joe’s mistake here. He discounts the underpinning of good journalism as practiced by Mark Bowden and others and salutes those who embrace rumor and say “who knows.”

The technique uses weightless information to counteract weighted facts and equates the two.

Bowden is not outraged at the criticism but by the simplicity and ignorance of this metric. I fear Joe misses the major point. Jonathon Mahler feels the issue is confused, but presents no facts.

Such belief-driven journalism is what Joe Nocera stands against. Else why would he criticize Aaron Sorkin and Jobs?

What a disappointment to see a journalists hero of mine so miss the point. Facts matter Joe. I know because you told me that.

Are 40-year-old ocean-going vessels safe?

The owners of El Faro, the American-flag lost to Joaquin with 33 humans aboard, assert that the age of the vessel — 40-years — was not a factor in the ship’s failure.  A number of experts and inspectors support that viewpoint.

But any number of studies clearly show that age is a factor in big ship casualties — and that most casualties occur among older ships.

Moreover, the useful lifetime of a big ship is generally set at 20-years.  Ships live on past that time, but insurance rates are higher — a fact that recognizes the risk.

Says an independent 2012 study of ship casualties by Southampton Solent University, School of Maritime and Technology, in the UK:

“The evidence confirms that the majority of accidents can be linked with older vessels….

Says a study in Traffic Review analyzing 30 years of ship casualty data:  78 percent of the total casualties occur among ships that are 13 years and older and “are 3.5 times more frequent than in new and middle-aged ships….”

In fact, the age of a ship is one of several factors the Coast Guard uses to profile potential risk — both in foreign vessels entering our ports and our own fleet.

Can a 40-year-old ship be safe?

Undoubtedly, for a particular period of time.

But experienced sea captains and veteran Coast Guard inspectors say it is difficult to make sure a 40-year-old ship remains in good shape even one day after the inspection.  Hidden hoses, rusting pipes, corroded wiring — all may not be visible to the inspector.

So there is little to support a statement that a 40-year-old ship would not encounter problems at sea in normal service.  All statistics appear to indicate a strong correlation.  Maintenance can offset problems of course.

Age is simply a high risk factor in ships — reflected by the statistics, strong anecdotal evidence and insurance rates.

To state flatly that age would not affect the El Faro is an exaggeration.

To suggest that the age of a vessel would not play a factor when it is heading into or near a hurricane is just plain wishful thinking.



My lord, Disraeli and Mark Twain understated the whole deal when either or both once said, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Today, they’d say, “There are lies, damned lies, statistics, sports broadcast statistics and….utterly damned data driven journalism.”

Cherry picking stats to make a dramatic visual point is one of the great sins of modern journalism.  Yeah, it can work in the hands of ethical journalists and artists.  More often than not, it becomes link bait — stupid simplifications of nuanced issues designed to push buttons and produce clicks.

But here’s one for you, in my crude hand:

Age of US Fleet Percent
40 Years


30 Years


20 Years


God I suck at visuals.  But if it is not clear: Half the US Flag merchant marine is 20-years or older — at or beyond the useful lifetime of most ships.

It doesn’t get better when you look at the coastal fleet, the ships in the so-called Jones Act trade, which includes Alaska, Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

There, 60% are “over age” and even that understates the problem.  More than half are 30 years old or older, and nearly a quarter of all the Jones Act vessel are 40 years or older — twice the age of the useful lifetime of most ships

So here is what we — by law — are creating.  A situation where American merchant mariners — if they want to work in the business — must sail old ships into very bad weather routinely as a part of their livelihood.  Yes, you’ll hear that old ships aren’t necessarily bad ships.  Or you’ll hear that they are inspected more often because they are old — and that makes them safe.

If that’s the case, then another set of statistics would not exist.

Study after study shows that ship casualties are highly correlated with the age of a ship.  Risk factors sailing aboard an old ship are 3.5 times higher than a younger ship. More than 70 percent of casualties occur in ships that are 13 years or older.

And because I have  respect for statistics, let me note again this is “correlation.”  Actual “causation” is another matter.

But if “old ships” were a food group?

Your doctor would tell you to avoid it.




1.) Did the captain really have a choice about sailing into the hurricane?

Probably not in the real world.
Captains and masters are at best middle management in today’s merchant marine.  They are not “master and commander’ as in the old days when radio contact was not so easy and corporate control was not so tight.

Here’s a note from a former bosun of the El Faro,
“I bet u the captain was trying to stay on schedule….same game different day….if u cant keep the schedual we will find a capt who will.”

Fact is the maritime transport system is the one modern system identified by a Yale scholar as an “error inducing system” because of the pressures on the system to use new technology and achieve savings on larger ships moving faster through the water.

2.) Evacuating in Lifeboats isn’t as Simple as a Tom Hanks Movie

Tom Hanks and the pirates may have slipped effortlessly into the water in the movie Captain Phillips.  This was not that ship.  The SS El Faro was listing and without power. Even if it had the sort of modern lifeboats of the “Captain Phillips” variety, it’s tough to launch into such seas.   When a ship has a 17 degree list, one side is perilously low; the other perilously high.  The company described two 43-foot lifeboats, which would place them in the “Captain Phillips” category of quick release, gravity fall lifeboats.  The Coast Guard discovered one, with its hull holed, empty.

3.) Old is not good.  This was a forty-year-old ship.  You can argue whether a 40-year-old ship belongs in commercial trade these days when 20 years is the optimum lifetime.  You can’t really argue whether a 40-year-old ship should sail into a potential Cat 4 hurricane.  It should not.